DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When NASCAR president Mike Helton pulled fledgling Swan Racing car owner Brandon Davis to the side at a recent owner/driver meeting, Davis’ first thought was “What have I done wrong?”
Davis’ fears were unfounded. Instead, the result of the meeting was a charitable initiative designed to help a Newton, Conn., community devastated by the murders of 20 children and six adults Dec. 14, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The offshoot is that Michael Waltrip will drive the No. 26 Swan Racing Toyota in the Daytona 500, with the car number chosen to honor the 26 victims of the shootings, rather than the No. 30 previously announced.
The car, painted green and white in the colors of the school, will feature a decal “Newtown to 80888,” encouraging fans to donate $10 to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund by texting the word “Newtown” to that number. All three Michael Waltrip Racing cars also will sport the “Newtown to 80888” decal in the Great American Race.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France and his wife Amy kicked off the campaign with a $50,000 donation to the fund, to be matched by The NASCAR Foundation.
“A few weeks ago, at my first driver/owner meeting, Mike Helton slaps me on the shoulder when I walk in and says ‘I need to talk to you after we’re finished here,'” Davis said Thursday during NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “First, I was extremely nervous and thought about leaving the meeting, but decided to stay.
“And following the meeting, Mike sat me down and said that he had an idea of running the 26 car in the Daytona 500 to represent the 20 children and the six adults who had lost their lives in the tragedy back in December in Newtown, Connecticut. He asked me to think about whether or not we could be part of it at Swan Racing, and I told Mike that, as long as my sponsors were on board, ‘We’re in.'”
Helton said the choice of Waltrip to drive the car for a one-race deal in what otherwise is David Stremme’s ride led to Davis’ participation as the car owner.
“The first step was to go to the driver and say, ‘Would you be interested if your car owner would be interested?’ and he said, ‘Yeah,'” Helton told the NASCAR Wire Service. “Then I went to Brandon and said, ‘Would you be interested?’
‘He and Stremme were in the meetings up there (at the NASCAR Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C.), and I asked them to stick until it was over with — I wanted to run something by him. Everybody you started talking to about doing this, in 30 seconds they’re in.”
A week before Thursday’s unveiling of the No. 26 car at Daytona, in an emotional meeting at the Newtown Town Hall that included France, Waltrip, Davis, Ty Norris (general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing) and Brett Jewkes (NASCAR’s vice president of Integrated Marketing Communications and chief communications officer), the car was revealed to the families of the victims.
“When we walked into that room, and seven of the families that lost children in that shooting on Dec. 14, were sitting on the front row looking at you, first of all, that was very hard to keep your composure over,” Waltrip said. “But as we spoke, those crying faces turned to smiles.
“They’re huge NASCAR fans up in that part of the country, and they got to realize that they’re going to have a car in Daytona, and it lit ’em up. It made me so proud that I was there to be a part of such a special announcement.”
France echoed Waltrip’s sentiment.
“That was probably the toughest day, in one respect, that I’ve ever been a part of,” France said. “Just looking in the eyes of the families, understanding the first responders — everybody in a whole community in a packed room — I said to them, ‘We’re fathers and mothers first.’
“I remember the call — somebody had called me back in December about the incident — and it just takes your breath away. So when the idea came to us, and Mike Helton called and said, ‘Look, here’s an opportunity to do something really impactful, not only to raise a fair amount of money but also to give the families and everybody in Newtown something to cheer for, something to look forward to — that’s what the Daytona 500 and the No. 26 car (are doing). It’s the right thing, and, hopefully, it’ll make a difference.”
The Sandy Hook School Support Fund was established jointly by the United Way of Western Connecticut and Newtown Savings Bank. All money raised for the fund goes to meet the needs of the Newtown community.